After 11 games, a little more than half the Big Ten season, Minnesota sits at 4-7 and likely outside the March Madness picture. I have been on record that absent a Big Ten Tournament title, the Gophers will not be playing in the NCAA Tournament. Minnesota has been a good home team and an extremely suspect road team. In wins, Minnesota has found more balanced scoring, made life difficult for their opponent for 94 feet, and have won most 50-50 balls. In losses, the Gophers have been let down by free throw shooting, by poor offensive efficacy, and a failure to make critical stops. However, this is a fan blog, and what would a Minnesota fan be without irrational hope? Below are three questions that the Gophers will have to answer in order to possibly threaten for an NCAA bid.
Who's going to be the second scorer?
After a disappointing beginning to conference play, Andre Hollins has returned to being a dangerous scorer. This is a welcome development, not only for the team, but as a fan. On offense the three most fun plays to watch are alley oops, poster dunks, and lights out three point shooting. Hollins has provided the third in spades during the Big Ten. In the four wins, he's shooting 17-28 from behind the arc. Over his last six games, he has a 3pt FG% of 59.6%. That's straight up ridiculous.
Unfortunately for the Gophers, Hollins has not consistently had a second teammate capable of sharing the scoring load. In the Gophers seven losses, he averages 10 fewer points per game. No other Gopher has been able to pick up the slack. The two likely starters that should be the second scorer are Mo Walker and Carlos Morris. While both have had individual games of note during conference play, they have struggled with distinct issues.
Walker, Minnesota's only credible inside scoring threat, has been frequently forced to operate far away from the basket by defenses and has been swarmed by doubles when he catches in deep position. Instead of passing out of the double to kickstart a ball reversal or a post reset, Walker has often tried to take on several defenders at once. Unsurprisingly, this strategy has been unsuccessful. This is not to say that Walker has regressed from last year, far from it. He is seeing the defenses he is seeing because he proved that he is difficult if not impossible to guard one on one for all but the tallest front courts.
Indeed, Walker is the likely candidate for a second scorer. More so than Morris, success by Walker will force opposing defenses to change how they defend the Gophers, opening up more opportunities for dribble penetration and open jump shots.
With that said, Morris is no slouch on the offensive end. He is the team's third leading scorer, and has proven to be a streaky player with a developing jump shot and a knack for making shots from tough angles. Problematically, Morris has a tendency to press when he is not getting enough looks, resulting in silly turnovers and stern looks from Pitino. While the turnovers are a problem, this is a developing year for Morris coming from junior college. Players at this level are just as skilled as he is and much faster than his previous competition. Good Morris is an excellent basketball player that is the only real slasher Minnesota fields. Bad Morris shouldn't leave the bench. If Minnesota gets good Morris for the rest of the season, they have a chance to surprise a few teams and take pressure of Hollins in the back court.
Has the Defense Improved?
Good question, and one that will finally get a real test this week with games at Iowa and Indiana. Over their last six games, Minnesota's 2-3 has been very effective at limiting drives and easy shots. The zone has benefited from a dearth of opponent's three point shooting threats. For example, if Purdue shoots their average from deep (meaning no ridiculous banked threes), the Gophers win by 12.
That will change shortly. Indiana is the best three point shooting team in the Big Ten, and the Hawkeyes have multiple shooters that given time can knock down shots. It's no surprise to note that Minnesota is not long, and good shooting teams will be able to shoot and pass over and around a 2-3. If and when that happens, Minnesota will have to drop back into a man-to-man scheme. How the Gophers handle man-to-man against good shooting teams will determine whether they have any chance whatsoever to make the tournament.
The previous discussion assumes that teams beat Minnesota's press. The first ten minutes of the second half of the Purdue game was a masterclass in team defense, and showed that there are games where Minnesota can turn up the defensive intensity in ways that make life particularly uncomfortable for opponents' guards. If the Gophers can replicate that success for an entire game, it may not much matter what type of defense they play in the half court.
Will the Gophers make Free Throw Opportunities Count?
Let's be blunt, the Gophers are a terrible free throw shooting team. That has not changed in Big Ten play. Minnesota is 8th in the conference at getting to the line, and 11th in the conference in converting those opportunities.
To be even more masochistic, here are Minnesota's free throw shooting performances and the point differentials for Big Ten play (+ indicates a Gopher win) and the same differentials in an alternate universe where we adjust all games below the average FT/FGA and FT% to the Big Ten average. Note that this exercise does not correct for missing the front end of a 1 and 1, which likely adds somewhere between 2 and 4 opportunities per game.
Yep, that's four more wins. That's the difference between 4-7 and playing for a good NIT seed and 8-3 and playing for a mid level Tournament seed. Those are additional wins over two good teams and Nebraska. Granted, reducing a basketball game to this counter-factual deliberately benefits the Gophers, but that's the point. Not coincidentally, this experiment is almost identical to Minnesota's pythogorean expectation (what KenPom uses to rank teams). As of today, Minnesota has a pythag expectation of ~80% and an actual winning percentage of 62.5%. The Gophers have lost six Big Ten games by five points or less.
For the team to make a run, it is critical that the Gophers get to the free throw line more often and make more of those shots. Getting to the line means getting the ball inside, either through drives or good post position. It means not falling in love with three point shots just because they are there. This is not a silver bullet for winning games. Minnesota does not and should not run dramatically new sets just to get fouled. The reason why it is important is for the games on the margin, those decided by less than two possessions. In those games, the Free Throw factor becomes important, and the Gophers cannot afford to continually lose it.
The stretch run of the Big Ten has arrived, and to paraphrase Donald Rumsfeld, you go with the team you have, not the team you want. Minnesota is not going to get taller or longer. They are not going to magically find a new set play that scores every time. However, to make the tournament the Gophers will need a second option on offense, a continued commitment to defensive improvement, and to improve free throw shooting. It is still a long hill to climb back into NCAA Tournament contention, but with positive developments in each of these areas it won't be Everest.